Theatre: Accommodations with conscience
Thursday 25 March 1999
BACK IN 1992, the theatre programme at the Edinburgh Festival was given over to a retrospective of the plays of the Glaswegian-Jewish dramatist, CP Taylor, who died in 1981. Short of desecrating his grave, it is hard to see how this exercise could have had a less constructive effect on his posthumous career. The pieces were badly selected and indifferently produced. It only added insult to injury that the play reckoned to be Taylor's masterpiece, Good - charting the process by which a decent, intelligent academic turns into a Nazi - was reserved for the fag end of the festival.
Michael Grandage's beautifully skilful and sensitive production makes amends for this. In this staging, the emotional logic of the play's restless structure is as lucid as the shifting shafts of radiance and colour in Hartley TA Kemp's fine lighting design. The drama cross-cuts between scenes with a person suffering from senile dementia (Faith Brook), with a wife who is coming unravelled (an utterly convincing Jessica Turner), with an adoring pupil who becomes his mistress (Emilia Fox) and with a Jewish doctor friend (excellent Ian Gelder) who evolves into an embarrassment for Halder, our Aryan protagonist. A cunningly cast Charles Dance is an ideal choice to prove that even soulful-eyed sensitivity personified is no proof against steady attrition of self-preserving self-deception.
Artfully dotted, though, like little oases of flattering calm amidst this tragicomic turmoil, there is a staggered, blow-by-blow dramatisation of Halder's first meeting with a Nazi official when, on the strength of a mother-inspired pro-euthanasia novel he has written, he is approached and seduced into taking on the alleged role of humane monitor of the party's eugenic programmes. From there, the play itself monitors those individually understandable - and collectively loathsome - accommodations with conscience that can push a man into putting job, family and skin before ideals, principles and fellow men.
Grandage's production acutely highlights the contradictions in Halder's position. Like lost souls, Dance and Miss Fox seem to cling to each other for warmth in the crackling flames of the bonfire of burning books. "If we're good to each other - and the people around us," she pleads, as if intoning some bankrupt mantra.
The fact that Halder cannot get dance band music out of his mind feels a bit sub-Dennis Potter in its juxtapositions and not especially well motivated and that, for me, slightly weakens the poignancy of the ending where, when he arrives at Auschwitz, he is horribly disconcerted to be greeted by an actual band of musical inmates. But the play and the production are very fine. It's an excellent touch that the Jewish doctor identifies with Germany and dislikes Jews (it's because Jews are human, not because they are good or bad Jews, that they should be free from persecution). It's also a heartening irony that the Jewish principle of sympathy for the individual as opposed to the bogus Nazi doctrine of "the common interest before self" should here be applied by a Jewish writer to a far from ideal German.
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